‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ is a ‘Watch out mate, Hitler’s on his way back’… it’s your rock and roll sociological bit.
David Bowie, NME, August 1975.
Bowie had entered the Seventies fascinated by supermen, dictators and Big Brothers, and the times suited his obsessions. But by mid-decade the old bogeymen seemed to be all going away, as if written out en masse by an author wrapping up an overlong book. Nixon, the Estado Novo, the Greek Junta, Franco, Mao: all gone between 1974 and 1976.
Of course there would be new, grotesque tyrants to come (Idi Amin and Pol Pot were still in early innings), but there was perhaps a moment, around 1975, of exhausted reprieve. Time, a meager but dedicated prosecutor, was ridding the world of its shabby emperors: even those who had died in their palaces were dead all the same. Or, as Bowie sang, carrying the news,
Leaders come, they hate [that] all
the people know,
that given time
the leaders go.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” seems like Bowie’s recalibration, taking the image of a Futurist superman (which had become a bit shopworn by Diamond Dogs) and reincarnating it as a media figure, a TV “personality,” a handsome politician kissing babies and women, existing purely as an image, capturing the hearts of millions. He’s common (“[he] looked a lot like you and me,” much like how Bowie once described Bob Dylan’s voice), yet he’s also a star-chosen celebrity messiah, his song’s title taken from a Paul Newman boxing film of the ’50s, whose tagline was “a girl can lift a fellow to the skies!”
The ruler promises the same. He flatters his subjects, saying they’re the elect as well, that his celebrity is their doing, that the common people now choose their own deities. It culminates in the title line, which equally could be said by governor or governed; it’s a wedding vow, binding the people to their ruler in a way that makes the old tyrannies seem boorish.
For “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Bowie reused some of “I Am Divine,” one of his Astronettes compositions. “I Am Divine” is a piece of swagger in which the cocksure singer tries to seduce a girl by telling her how great he is, as though he’s selling futures in himself. The perspective of “Somebody Up There” is third-person, the now-besotted singer making the case for his political messiah, though occasionally visited by doubts. By the chorus, he’s been joined by his backing singers, who pop in and out like advertisements (the piping “what they look like” sounds like a TV station ident).
Bowie’s song is a series of withheld pleasures. Bowie’s voice appears towards the end of an 8-bar intro, apparently signaling the onset of the verse, only to have the saxophone keep going. The chorus is a repeated descending chord progression that’s only broken by a move to F on the title line. And Bowie sings the full title phrase only twice in the six-minute track, while the backing singers often start the line but never quite finish it. When Bowie sings “somebody up there likes me” for the last time, savoring the high notes of “likes,” the song moves into a two-minute coda of exhortations and praise.
For Young Americans, Bowie had wanted to hire MFSB, the Sigma Sound house band, but couldn’t get them due to scheduling conflicts. So tracks like “Somebody Out There” seem like Bowie’s attempts to mimic the MFSB sound, with organ subbing for the string section and the chorus of (primarily) Luther Vandross, Ava Cherry and Robin Clark as the equivalent of the Three Degrees. (David Sanborn’s saxophone has to fill in for MFSB’s entire 10-plus horn section, which gets wearying, but Carlos Alomar on guitar, often hitting on downbeats, gives a needed kick to the track—he holds his own with mainstay MSFB guitarists like Norman Harris).
As with “Right,” another of his Sigma tracks, Bowie uses his vocal chorus in a pinpoint fashion, dropping in a single voice a beat before his lead, dotting his songs with varying interjections—sometimes Vandross or Bowie singing low, sometimes Cherry and Clark soaring up. The track’s sumptuous dedication to pleasure, its slick hedonism put to fascist ends, makes it one of Bowie’s more chilling songs of the period.
Recorded in Philadelphia ca. 11-18 August 1974, and it led off the B-side of Young Americans. Debuted on stage in early October ’74, and part of the setlist for roughly a month.
Top: Washington DC, 8 August 1974.